Much like that wonderful line from The Princess Bride, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die," I warn you. As we begin this discussion of retiring from professional singing, prepare to be wounded.
It is achingly difficult to think of giving up something in which so much of our love, so much of our passion, so much of our self-definition - and so much of our ego - is wrapped. What I write here are my subjective observations and feelings, because the only singer with whom I have had 100 percent experience is Adria Firestone. You've heard of her, haven't you?
Who is Adria Firestone?
Get me Adria Firestone.
Get me a young Adria Firestone.
Who is Adria Firestone?
This series is about the last two lines of that progression. Do you recognize the signs? Is it time for a career change? How do you deal with the grief and the mourning when a career that has defined you is suddenly or gradually, taken away? What else is there? How do you come to peace with saying goodbye to a part of your soul?
Have you ever felt a gong of truth go off in your body? Have directors been treating you differently? Have you been offered different types of roles? How has it felt?
Words from CJ Williamson, Classical Singer's, founding editor
Back in 2004, in Connecticut, at the first Classical Singer Convention, I met many singers: the starry-eyed novices, the practical working singers, the singers who were clinging to 20-year-old demos and head shots, still questing for the elusive, and finally, the group of singers who had made their mark in a successful career. It seemed even the latter were divided into two camps: those who spouted entertaining stories and peppered every sentence with important names and those who knew who they had been and who they are now. They sincerely wanted to find better ways to communicate their experience to young singers.
I didn't fit comfortably into any of these categories. I felt such a deep sadness and couldn't grasp the why of it. I needed to understand something and I didn't yet know what. Now, I know my own wound was too new. I didn't have the perspective of distance and time. CJ Williamson, the founder and longtime editor of Classical Singer, saw it. Soon after, she sent me this email.
I was thinking about you the other day. Your face keeps coming to [my] mind - the time I ran into you as you were outside the hotel. You had such a poignant look on your face. It has haunted me... I thought I would ask you if you would ever care to explore in words the experiences of singers, as they contemplate retiring from singing and finding new paths.
The pain of that thought. The liberation of that thought. All the ramifications. Saying 'no' to a job offer for the first time. Having to watch younger singers take the jobs you used to get and gulping as you realize that it's their turn. The rage of, "But I wasn't done! I've still got more to say!"
Because it's taboo, singers suffer in silence when it's time [to retire]... They don't know how to do it. It's like dying with no one telling you where the hospital is. I've been wondering if you could be the one to lead the crusade here.
CJ expressed it so beautifully - and at last, dear inspiring lady, I'm taking up the gauntlet.
Saying goodbye to an old friend.
The first time the gong of truth went off in my body, I was backstage in Córdoba [Spain] doing yoga, as I always did before my first entrance as Carmen. I was aware of a quiet voice that said, "This is the last Carmen, you're ever going to do."
I was stunned. I wondered whether I would be able to get through the performance without sobbing. Thankfully, the seasoned pro took over and I gave my performance, but part of me was an observer, and I knew I had experienced truth.
That was a tough realization. Carmen and I grew up together. She put food on my table and a roof over my head. Her strength protected my softness, but now I had become the woman of Act IV, Libre elle est née, et libre elle a mourra. (Free I was born and free I will die) At last, I belonged to myself, but what exactly did that mean? I had been on stage since I was 10, modeling from age 5. What else was there?
Heeding my own voice: body, mind and spirit
Just two years prior to the CS convention, I performed the role of Desiree in Sondheim's A Little Night Music with Utah Opera. I found a deep kinship with this character who was living The Glamorous Life It was the only number in the show I disliked . I guess it was too close for comfort.
Many of my colleagues sublet apartments in the city. They didn't see the point or expense of keeping their own place. I never had the strength for 'anywhere I hang my hat is home'. I needed one place on this planet where I knew where everything was; a place where I could feel an aaaahh of relief when I opened the door. I needed a place where I could dump out the suitcases, run out, get my hair cut, get a facial to remove the stage makeup, squeeze in my yearly physical, fly by the dentist, and pick up my dry cleaning - a place to pack the suitcases again and start my run to the airport. While I waited in the airport - after a while, they're all the same. I promise you - I tried to keep my friendships alive by calling all over the world or by sending emails. All of us become experts in using downtime, don't we?
During production of A Little Night Music, I was again possessed by a deep, bittersweet feeling that it was time to say goodbye to my beloved stage. I had seen the world. I was exhausted with travel. I had gained a lot of weight. I had lost my father, my mother was ravaged by Alzheimer's, my best friend told me she had always been jealous of me and I had lost the lust to perform. The public adulation and the exotic locales no longer satisfied my nameless longing. I felt old, fat, tired, and world-weary. The refuge of the myriad characters I portrayed was no longer enough. I needed to uncover the part of myself I was hiding from and heal it. It was time for a change.
Less than a month later, my operatic career came full circle. I had reluctantly agreed to sing Maddalena in Rigoletto with Maestro Anton Coppola. I told him I was too old to sing the role and his snappy reply was, "Oh, so you think I'm too old?) He is in his late 80's and still going strong. No matter how experienced you are, working with Maestro Coppola is a master class in phrasing. About halfway through the rehearsal. I was sitting next to him at a break and I said, "I think this is my last opera." He protested. But in my heart I knew this was it. Rigoletto was my first opera, back in 1970 and now full circle, it was my last.
As I sat in the green room until Act IV I felt like someone from another planet who landed in an unfamiliar world. My colleagues were gossiping about each other's singing prowess, their lazy agents, their heart-wrenching love affairs, the latest flavor of voice teacher - and for the third time, I knew it was time to end my addiction. It was time to end my 40 year love affair with the stage.
This is the beginning of the dialogue - talk to me. Now it's your turn. I look forward to your comments..... As we continue to explore this topic in this series of articles, I will share how to deal with the grief and mourning, how to find a new definition of yourself, how to take action on your new discoveries and how to find peace and fulfillment.
First published in Classical Singer/September 2008
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